Plastic Toys, Playground Spaces, and Moving with the Yard

By Andrea Thomas with Nicole Land

The warm season this year has flown by, but I remember very distinctly all the climbing and jumping off of surfaces that first captured our attention when we thought about movement this spring.  The climbing and jumping always creates some internal conflicts for me: is it safe for children to be climbing up on rocks, stumps, and trees? Is climbing safe for the plants and other living things in the environment?  

The playground was made for gross motor movements of the children, right?  Are they the only ones who matter? For years, some beautiful tiger lilies used to grow in the space at the top of the rock wall by the toddler fence.  But over the past couple of seasons, these plants have been so trampled each spring by children who climb up the rock wall and jump, that although the green shoots still spring up, the plants are stunted and the flowers no longer bloom. As an adult in the environment, how do I decide what it more important?  Where do I set the border/boundary? When we make borders, what lives are we paying attention to and what lives are we not valuing? This yard is a place where things live and die: tiger lilies get trampled, animals make homes that are removed, leaves get picked, and ants get stepped on. Because we have a “natural playground” – and because squirrels, rats, raccoons, trees, moss, wasps, and snails live here – we can ask certain questions.  Even more, because we are part of this place, we have to ask certain questions. We have an ethical responsibility to think about how our human moving is entangled with the possibilities that other lives have for moving in the yard. How does our moving activate our ethical and political choices to pay attention to certain lives and not others? Is it more important to let the children test their skills and explore, climb and jump wherever they want?  Or do I teach a responsibility to care with these plants and flowers? In noticing how our moving is entangled with the yard, the familiar idea that the yard is a space just (or primarily) for children’s skill development becomes unsettled. What happens when we pay attention together with children to how movement connects us within a place? How can we notice how human movements impact plants and flowers – and, how plants and flowers shape human moving. How can we figure out how to move together? 

I think about bigger issues in our global environment. Is it important that humans be able to move about anywhere, possibly at the expense of animals and ecosystems? For several months, I have been following the page of Nova Scotia Beach Garbage Awareness on Facebook. The owner of the page, Karen Jenner, picks up beach garbage – primarily plastics and styrofoam – that washes up along the east shore of the Bay of Fundy close to her farm. Back at her barn, she organizes, counts and weighs the pieces of garbage she finds, and then artistically arranges and photographs each collection to post online. Her work is drawing international attention to the negative impact humans are having on life in the ocean and on the shore, and even how we are reducing our own enjoyment of these natural spaces with our waste.

As an educator, in seeing the magnitude of just this one problem, I would like to help children begin to understand how our human actions affect our environment.  But should – and how could – this begin on the playground… in the space that was created and designed for them (and their consumption)?

Our exploration of movement with the children has definitely changed throughout the summer. From the initial “big” movements of climbing and jumping this spring, it seems as though the movements have slowed down and become smaller, and in doing so, there are more noticings of the movements of other things on the playground. A few months ago, we experimented with not putting the plastic toys out in the yard one morning a week. In the absence of the shovels and bicycles and balls, we thought with the children about how we can be thoughtful in our moving with the yard. We wanted to consider how we could pay attention to the multiple lives that live in the yard, and to think about how we can move with them. We can see the comings and goings of spider fluffs and worms and potato bugs. Certainly part of this shift involves the departure of some of our older children who were more physically adept at climbing and jumping and running fast. But there seems to have been a change in play and noticing and moving on the playground as well. As plastic toys and human-made materials have been removed or limited some mornings, children have been noticing more of what lives, grows and dies in our outdoor space.  

But, we do not want to argue that removing plastic toys was a solution or harmonious practice for changing our movements or that we now have mastered noticing how to move with the yard. How do we respond when our careful noticing of worms and potato bugs can be followed by wanting to squish a bug or hold a worm? I continue to wonder: does an awareness of the bugs or plants or animals living in the space affect the way preschoolers move with what is still called “their” playground?  How will care be taken? How does care happen here, in this space that is designed “for” children, and that has infrastructure and pathways that centre children’s movement – the pathways and structures that are also constantly crossed by many other lively animals, insects, and plants?

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